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My last embryo’s peculiar path to the miracle of childbirth

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After waking up at 5 a.m. to travel three hours from our home in Gatineau to a Montreal fertility clinic, I lay on a narrow gurney in a cool, grey surgical room with my butt down and knees up.

I knew the drill. I was covered by a thin, blue paper gown that offered as much protection as a napkin draped over the stomach of a rhinoceros. The nurse reached over and pushed open my knees. She shuffled my feet into the metal stirrups while another nurse put a long tube and a syringe on a tin tray.

"Please, let this one work," I thought as a jolt of dripping-wet cold shot up my spine and the first nurse painted me using a pair of metal tongs holding a wad of gauze soaked in brown iodine.

A third nurse rushed to grab the tire-sized spotlight hanging above me and repositioned its beam up my legs.

This was not the way I'd thought it would go.

Six years ago, my wife and I were sitting on the couch, each holding a laptop, excited to choose our sperm donor. We skipped through pages of genealogies, test scores, photographs and personal essays. Did we want an Irishman, a Korean; a blond, a redhead; an introvert, an extrovert; a painter, a soccer player?

People reminded me that I was lucky to be married to a younger pair of ovaries. But we were also shackled to fertility clinics and quests for donated sperm. We spent $15,000 in one year for 20 intrauterine insemination attempts – and no baby.

Soon after we started, the Quebec government began funding in vitro fertilization treatments. The process offered reasons for optimism, but was invasive: A long vacuum needle stabs through your uterine wall, bypasses the fallopian tubes, punctures your ovaries and sucks up your eggs.

We signed up.

Trying to become pregnant was like trying to pass chemistry in high school – I needed help and did not like the high probability of failure. There are 11 phases to the IVF journey: the nasal sprays; the suppositories; the weekly internal ultrasounds; the military-timed hormone injections; the daily internal ultrasounds; the vacuum extraction surgery; the mixing of sperm and egg in a Petri dish; the first waiting phase; the blastocyst transfer; the second waiting phase; and finally the momentous nail biting while you pee on a stick.

The first time I ever injected a needle was into my wife's arm. It was mid-August, and Tiphaine and I were visiting my parents at their summer trailer. I emptied the contents of our travel injection kit onto the couch while my dad reread the instructions and my mom busied herself in the kitchen. Tiphaine let out a screech as I took aim for her bicep. I told dad to hold her still.

Lindsay Campbell for The Globe and Mail

Tiphaine got pregnant on her first try, and I saw my son born the next spring. Being a woman, watching another woman give birth to your baby is a privilege. Being a woman, watching your wife in the thrall of labour, knowing that you might be next, is a dilemma.

For me, conception was not as easy. It had been four years since we started – two years of failed fertility attempts, six months of new-motherhood and its blissful delirium and more than another year of failed IVF treatments.

When I started the trips to Montreal again, I went alone. Tiphaine stayed behind with our son. I could drive myself until it came time for the surgery to take out my eggs. My father called. He’d cashed in his Air Miles and booked me a limo. I gave them seven eggs that day. Two survived. One was implanted, but miscarried. I had one embryo left.

Hope is a necessity, but also a curse. While it is bitter to choke back the failure of infertility, it is torture to cling to a dream that isn’t meant to be. My government-funded treatments were exhausted, I was exhausted and it was time for me to let go.

“What do you want to do with your last embryo?” our fertility doctor asked me at our next appointment.

“I want to give it to Tiphaine to carry,” I replied. My dream to be pregnant did not outweigh my desire to have this embryo live. “She would still call me Mommy,” I sobbed.

I looked up at my doctor as he said: “Paula, we cannot tell the future but only make the most of our present. This embryo is the chance that you still have.”

In the operating room shortly after, a doctor walked toward a large flat-screen TV. After a few turns of her microscope, a round grey blur turned into a small crystal jelly dot on the screen – my five-day-old blastocyst. It had clusters of black specks at its centre and dark curvy lines that bounced along its circular perimeter. I waited for the transfer, closed my eyes. “Please, be my baby.”

After weeks of light bleeding, I was back at the clinic. I knew this familiar road: It was over.

The clinic makes you come in anyway for a final ultrasound and to close your file. I needed to hear it, anyway.

The doctor turned the computer screen toward me and repositioned the ultrasound scope.

“Look!” he said with a grin. A Mobius flow of brown-and-yellow-coloured contours turned into a small flutter. Her heart was beating.

Paula Bath lives in Aylmer, Que.

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